You Say Shiraz and I say Syrah
It has always puzzled me why the Australians call Syrah, Shiraz. It’s the same grape variety — so maybe they just wanted to differentiate their red wines from those of the Rhône Valley.
The city of Shiraz, from which the Aussie version takes its name, was the ancient capital of the Fars province of Persia (now Iran). Archeological evidence supports the theory that wine was produced here as early as 5400‒5000 BC. Neolithic pottery found in the area contained residues of tartaric acid which could only have come from wine production.
By the ninth century, Shirazi wines were recognized as the best in the Middle East. But these wines were white and made in two different styles: dry wines for drinking young and sweet wines in sherry style that would age. Marco Polo makes mention of the wines in his travel writing; and other classical accounts describe a unique technique for training the vines in Shiraz. Using a series of pulleys and weights they encouraged the vines to grow up one side of a house and down the other.
This notion of fine wines emanating from the city of Shiraz gave rise to the following legend: a French knight named Guy de Stérimberg, returning home wounded from the Albigensian Crusade in 1224, brought back with him vine cuttings from the terraced vineyards of Shiraz. He had them planted in the northern Rhône, in what is now Tain-l’Hermitage. Stérimberg became a hermit, living alone above the vineyard which became known as Hermitage (the French for hermit is ermite).
Paul Jaboulet Âiné, the current owner of the site with its tiny, emblematic chapel at the top, has honoured the legend by depicting the armoured knight holding his shield on the label of their Chevalier de Stérimberg Hermitage Blanc.
But trust science to kill a good story: DNA evidence proved that the grapes in the Hermitage vineyard are an autochthonous French variety, a genetic cross of two rare French grapes — Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza. (Incidentally, Italy’s Trebbiano is also known as White Hermitage as well as Shiraz White.)
James Busby, a Scot considered to be “the Father of Australian viticulture,” returned to Europe in 1831 to collect vine cuttings from France and Spain to be planted in his new homeland. Syrah was among them. These cuttings were planted in the Sydney Botanical Gardens and in the Hunter Valley before being disseminated to South Australia in 1839. Within 20 years Syrah established itself as a dominant variety in the country. And the growers there reverted to the old geographic name.
And geography plays a big part in the stylistic difference between the two sobriquets: Shiraz, the Australian model, in a warm climate, is a big, bold, full-bodied, fruit-driven wine with lots of extract, usually aged in American oak (the choice of wood used in the production Australia’s greatest Shiraz, Penfold’s Hermitage; this iconic wine spends 18 to 20 months in new American oak hogsheads of 300 litres), while the Syrah of the Northern Rhône (and cool climate regions like Ontario) is drier and more savoury, usually fermented and matured in French oak. Mission Hill in the Okanagan Valley makes both a Syrah and a Shiraz, the difference being in the type of oak used, French or American.
There used to be no confusing the product of the Northern Rhône with that of the Barossa Valley but cooler regions like Victoria are producing Shiraz in a more restrained and elegant style. A good example is Fowles Wine in the Strathbogie Ranges who make Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch Shiraz and its little sister, Are You Game? Shiraz. And the great Rhône producer, Michel Chapoutier, has been waltzing with Victoria producers to bring his Syrah expertise to Shiraz. Witness his Domaine Tournon Mathilda Shiraz. And you can’t get much more Aussie than that.